The Science Of Beer
A clean, well-lit taproom just off the beaten path in Salt Lake City, UT. Behind the bar, the words “UintaBrewing Co.” are carved neatly into the blonde-colored wood, just below the mountains that bare the same name. It’s early, but members of the American Homebrewers Association have gathered here to learn from each other how to improve their craft - the craft of making beer. I went there with a simple question: How do you make beer?
“How I make beer? I like to be down in my basement, away from the children, some 80s sounds cranking, and I just get into it. It’s nice and simple, very relaxing, all I have to think about is making beer, nothing else.”
That’s not really what I meant by “how do you make beer?” But, that's what one patron, who just gave his name as Vern, told me. Perhaps hinting at what I would eventually learn about brewing.
What I meant was, what is the process of making beer - the science of it? What are the ingredients? How is it created?
“Brewing is interesting because regions dictate styles. People used to build their beers on what their water profile tasted like. They didn’t know they were doing it. They just understood that this style of beer is good with this style of water," said Patrick Bork, a brewer at Uinta. "Really, brewing is one of the oldest professions out there. It’s one of the first things we started doing when we stopped wandering. So, if it’s that old, it isn’t the Walter White chemistry thing in the lab. It really is just a really old tradition. And it is on some levels simple. Some people refer to it as controlled spoilage. That’s all it is.”
Bork is being modest. There are just four ingredients in beer - water, grain, hops, and yeast - but recipes can be very nuanced. For Bork the challenge is more difficult than for some. In Utah, beers with an alcohol content above 3.2% by weight (or 4% by volume) are considered liquor, limiting where they can be sold and by whom. By comparison, Budweiser, Coors, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, all have higher alcohol contents, as do many craft beers. Still, I wanted hear about brewing at its most fundamental, stripped of nuance, so I challenged Bork to explain the brewing process to me in 30 seconds.
“Yeah, basically, I mean... 30 seconds? Basically, you’re extracting sugars from grain and you’re trying to get a sugar water source called wort. With this wort you basically boil it down, and during the boil you add hops, and different reactions happen at different times. You cool it down, get it in a fermenter, throw in some yeast, and the yeast takes over the brewing from there.”
Perhaps it’s an unfair question. The more I talked to brewers, the more I found it difficult to isolate the science of beer craft from the history and the art of it. While many of the homebrewers I talked to are scientists by trade, asking them to strip brewing of all but it’s cold chemistry started to feel like asking my grandmother to explain her cookie recipe in mathematical notation. To help I asked my friend Jamie Strange, a homebrewer and a scientist, to tell me how he thinks about brewing.
“I think I approach [brewing] in sort of a scientific way, where I plan it out and I make this design. I come up with a design for the experiment. In a way you can think of brewing as an experiment. You have an idea, right? 'Okay, here’s what I want.' 'Now this is my hypothesis.' 'If I do all of these things this way, it will result in this.' Then you run the experiment, which is the brewing process, to test that. But when you’re doing it, it’s like cooking. Anybody who does a lot of cooking is going to have this same feeling of, 'I’m messing with this; I’m doing that.' And each time you make a loaf of bread it’s a little different. It’s the same thing with the beer. Each time you make it it’s a little different. And some of that is going to be the yeast, some of it is the hops. Maybe it’s the air pressure outside or the quality of the water you use. Whatever goes into it is going to have an effect. But you have a hypothesis and you test it through the brewing process and then, you know, you get to drink the beer afterwards.”
There are many resources available to those interested in the history, the art, and the science of homebrewing, from websites, to books, to your local brewer’s supply store.